Politics for a Smarter World
Chicago’s massive and peaceful May Day demonstrations on Tuesday, May 1, 2012, united a diverse coalition of citizens for a day of community action and historical reflection.
Supporters from Occupy Chicago joined dozens of immigrant rights and labor rights groups in Union Park. A helicopter droned as it hovered high overhead, and Chicago police stationed on all sides of the park surveilled those who came and went. Shortly after 1:20 p.m., around 2000 demonstrators braved occasional rain as they marched over two miles from the Near West Side to Federal Plaza downtown. Along the way, marchers heckled the Chicago Board of Trade and paused for a moment of silence to remember the Haymarket martyrs who were executed 125 years ago in the fight for the eight-hour workday.
Remembrance seems like an anachronism in a nation with an historical memory that seems to span, at best, five years. Moreover, the proliferation of technology—including social media, smartphones, and iPads—has compressed the 24-hour news cycle into a ceaselessly refreshing 24-minute news cycle. Whether or not the public wants new content, it is feverishly produced. Even the most mundane events are livestreamed, photographed, and blogged religiously. Likewise, Occupy is clearly the most copiously documented social movement in human history.
It seems plausible then, to suggest that new means of organizing and communicating could disrupt the links between today’s social movements and those of the past. After all, this is not your grandfather’s revolution. However, technological advances appear to have strengthened connections between the past and the present and not disrupted them. The Facebook walls and Twitter feeds of the Occupy Movement are open repositories of public memory that seamlessly meld narratives of social struggle with little regard to geography or temporality.
Chicago’s May Day events are no exception. Throughout the day, participants repeatedly link Chicago’s twenty-first century fight for immigrant and labor rights to similar battles during the late nineteenth century. In particular, the memory of Chicago’s Haymarket Riot pervades the day’s events. As William Faulkner writes in Requiem for a Nun (1951), “The past isn’t dead. It isn’t even past.” For the participants in Chicago’s May Day rally, the interred bodies of Chicago’s Haymarket martyrs reify the injustice they still fight today.
Mayor Harrison and the Haymarket in 1886
On May 4, 1886, Chicago Mayor Carter H. Harrison, strolled casually through a diverse crowd of 2000 that included avowed anarchists, socialists, and advocates for the eight-hour workday who had gathered in the old Haymarket on Randolph Street. Socializing among Chicago’s 40% immigrant population, the multi-lingual “people’s mayor” attended the rally to convey a sense of law and order. Undoubtedly wearing his trademark “slouch hat,” he situated himself on a perch overlooking the crowd and slowly smoked a cigar. He surveyed his constituents while Albert Parsons, Samuel Fielden, and August Spies delivered impassioned speeches, in German and English, from a wagon used as a stage.
August Spies, the editor of the German pro-labor newspaper the Arbeiter-Zeitung, called for a rally near the Haymarket after witnessing a brutal crackdown on striking workers one day earlier. Nearly 40,000 workers of the McCormick Reaper Works walked out on May 1st. Tensions reached a fever pitch by the third day of the strike. As the scabs finished their shift at McCormick’s for the day, a crowd of strikers heckled and accosted them. Within minutes, more than 200 police officers descended on the fracas and pummeled the crowd with clubs and indiscriminate gunfire. August Spies rushed from a nearby meeting in time to witness police firing upon a crowd that included women and children.
The gathering at the Haymarket began to disperse around 10:00 p.m. as an impending thunderstorm whittled the crowd down to about 200. By this time, Spies and Parsons had gone and Samuel Fielden remained speaking to the crowd as Mayor Harrison departed. Making a call to the Des Plaines Street station, Harrison reported that the gathering had been peaceful, and he made his way home.
A few minutes later, a bomb exploded in a crowd of police officers and civilians igniting a firestorm of controversy that would become known as the Haymarket Affair. After Harrison’s departure, Inspector John Bonfield of the Chicago Police Department and 180 officers proceeded to the Haymarket to disperse the remaining crowd. As the police ordered the crowd to disperse from a nearby wagon, Fielden cried out that it was a peaceful and lawful gathering. Moments later, someone from an undetermined location threw a bomb. Burning hunks of shrapnel tore through the crowd wounding 66 individuals. Instinctively, the police opened fire in all directions. Ultimately, upwards of 200 people were wounded and eight police officers died. No one was able to confirm the identity of the bomb thrower. Regardless, the public outcry for justice was great; the police conducted a series of raids and arrested eight men.
A grand jury convened within weeks of the bombing indicted August Spies, Michael Schwab, Samuel Fielden, Albert R. Parsons, Adolph Fischer, George Engel, Louis Lingg, and Oscar Neebe for the murder of Chicago Police Office Mathias J. Degan. After a high profile trial, four men were hanged on November 11, 1887: Spies, Engel, Fischer, and Parsons. Lingg had killed himself a day before the hanging. In 1893, after public hysteria had subsided, Neebe, Fielden, and Schwab were pardoned by Illinois Governor John Peter Altgeld.
Mayor Harrison and May Day in 2012
Now, 126 years after the Haymarket Riot, Mayor Carter Harrison overlooks another gathering of demonstrators fighting for labor and immigrant rights in Chicago. An eight-foot-tall bronze statue of Harrison stands atop a 15-foot-high granite pedestal in the southwest corner of Union Park. Originally a magnificent tribute, today the monument is haggard: The ornamental lights that once flanked the sculpture are gone. On the front and back of the pedestal, discolored rectangles mark the site of two bronze plaques that vanished in the early 1970s. These plaques were inscribed with text from Harrison’s eloquent final speech delivered at the close of the World’s Columbian Exposition in 1893: “Genius is but audacity, and the audacity of Chicago has chosen a star. It has looked upward to it and knows nothing that it fears to attempt and thus far has found nothing that it cannot accomplish.” The beauty of Harrison’s prose contrasts with the disrepair of his monument which has languished under the tenure of seven Chicago mayors.
Oblivious to the statue of Harrison towering above, May Day demonstrators find refuge along the beveled edges of the base of the monument. A white twenty-something with a hunter green Chrome messenger bag slung over his left shoulder drinks coffee and converses amiably with a group of African American men and women. Beside them, a young girl with braids and colorful barrettes kneels in the grass to tie her shoe. On the opposite side of the monument, Len Wallace plays “Solidarity Forever” on his accordion while a small but dedicated audience sings along. He wears a red baseball cap, red scarf, and bright blue work jacket. A sticker that reads, “This machine kills Fascists,” (an homage to Woody Guthrie) is affixed to the face of Len’s accordion. He hails from Ontario, Canada and has received praise from the likes of Billy Bragg and the late “Utah” Phillips.
Carter Harrison would find the scene surprisingly similar to the one he witnessed in the Haymarket over a century earlier. The crowd is similarly sized, around 2000. Speeches are delivered from a makeshift stage. At the Haymarket, speakers stood on the back of a wagon; today they stand upon the back of a flatbed truck. At both events, the audience is comprised largely of immigrants. At the Haymarket, the attendees were primarily German, Swedish, and Irish. At Union Park, many of the attendees are Mexican. At both events, impassioned speeches are delivered in an alternating amalgam of languages: German and English in the Haymarket; Spanish and English in Union Park.
The May Day speeches begin when well-known immigrant rights activist Jorge Mujica introduces Carlos Arango, Executive Director of Casa Aztlán, an educational and social center located in Chicago’s Pilsen neighborhood. Arango chastises President Obama for promises he made as a Senator: “In 2006, President Obama made a commitment in this location to work for immigration reform. Today in 2012, Mr. Obama hasn’t complied with us, and now he wants us to vote for him. If he wants our vote, he has a long way to go between now and November!”
As the audience surrounding the stage grows, it becomes the focal point for a competing series of visual messages. A banner stretches across the front of the stage that reads, “Obama Escucha Estamos en la Lucha!” (Obama Listen We are Fighting!) and Legalize Hard Working Immigrants.” Then, obscuring the first banner, volunteers unfurl a second that promotes a leftist candidate running in the 2012 Mexican presidential election: “Andrés Manuel López Obrador: El Cambio Verdadero Está en Tus Manos” (The Real Change is in Your Hands). A short time later, eight individuals lug in a 15-foot-tall cross that they position alongside the stage. The enormous cross is covered entirely in white fabric and reads, “God is love,” “inequalities,” and “injustices.”
The first speaker to explicitly invoke the legacy of the Haymarket Riot is Adrian Pedroso, National President of the Workers of the National Autonomous University of Mexico (UNAM). Pedroso speaks only in Spanish: “It’s very important to be here in this city, Chicago, where in the nineteenth century, the martyrs of Chicago made it possible for the workers of the world to win the eight-hour workday.” Pedroso explains that the expansion of neoliberal policies throughout the world are eroding the rights of all workers: “Each day there is more poverty. The system only generates injustice and poverty! That is why it is important that I am here with you today . . . because the only way to defend and increase our rights is with organization and by fighting just as the martyrs of Chicago did!”
The rest of the park hums with retail and intellectual activity. A Latino man in a white “USA” t-shirt and Chicago Bear’s hat sells cold soft drinks from a cooler and bags of Frito Lay chips from a cardboard box. Paleteros, ice cream men, ring bells as they wheel their carts across the moist, lumpy grass. They seem pleased by the turnout. Across the park you can see the soft, round shape of pink and blue cotton candy attached to 10-foot-tall poles that vendors carry. One cotton candy vendor reads a copy of the bi-lingual newspaper Tribuno del Pueblo while waiting patiently for customers. Other individuals distribute literature related to broad array of causes: immigration reform, NATO, anarchism, health care, and more. Labor and community groups distribute picket signs to those without them and begin to organize their marchers. Countless labor unions are in attendance: National Nurses United, the Teamsters Union, Unite Here Local 1, the Postal Workers, the Midwest Workers Association, the Service Employees International Union (SEIU), Warehouse Workers for Justice (WWJ), and the Association of Street Vendors, just to name a few.
The park also teems with members of the media and freelance journalists. Each vies for an exclusive angle to cover regarding the day’s events. Chicago’s Korean television network, KBC, positions themselves close to the stage and carefully films every speaker. The major networks look for anyone recognizable: WGN television interviews Andy Thayer, the public face of the upcoming NATO protest. The Chicago Tribune and ABC news find 60s activists Bill Ayers and Bernardine Dohrn in the crowd. Breitbart.com blogger “Rebel Pundit,” looks for the “radicals” at the demonstration and finds them everywhere. He also manages to locate a few individuals who do not understand the meaning of the picket signs they have just been handed. Other bloggers and podcasters tote recording devices and interview attendees or scribble notes into their padfolios.
The peaceful march to Federal Plaza begins at 1:20 p.m. with a countdown over a generator powered public address system. A red, 1940s fire truck leads the march and occasionally belches smoke. A dozen individuals from Occupy Chicago and some who are livestreaming the May Day march ride in the back of the truck. A large banner carried at the front of the march reads: “Unionize Organize” and “Papeles para Todos (Papers for All).” Many picket signs relate to immigration issues: Arizona’s SB1070 law, E-Verify, immigration raids, deportation, and the Dream Act.
Around 1:30 p.m. it begins to rain, but the weather does little to dampen the festive atmosphere of the march. The crowd chants familiar rallying cries: “We are the 99%,” “Banks got bailed out. We got sold out,” and “They say cut back. We say fight back!” However, some chants seem new: “What’s disgusting? Union Busting,” and “Deport Bank of America!”
As the march turns south on Des Plaines Ave at 2:20 p.m. down the street from the Haymarket Memorial, the procession pauses. May Day Committee organizers call for a moment of silence to in honor of those who died in the struggle for the eight-hour workday. At the behest of the speaker, the crowd gets down onto one knee.
The mood returns to jubilance as the march crosses over an expressway overpass. Cars and trucks racing below the overpass honk in solidarity. The fire truck leading the march brakes to allow the rest to catch up. Spontaneously, individuals from Occupy Chicago break into something resembling a choreographed flash mob or a Bollywood street dance. From a megaphone on the truck, someone bellows—in a James Brown cadence—“Get up! Get down! There’s revolution in this town!” Those in the roadway respond to the chant with coordinated dance moves.
At 3:00 p.m. the march reaches the Chicago Board of Trade. The crowd gets visibly animated and cheers, “People over profits! Occupy Chicago!” Workers inside press up against the windows and peer at those gathered below. Over a loudspeaker, a marcher proclaims, “We are not going to take it any longer. When you go home, talk to your neighbors. Talk to your friends. Tell them the 99% is alive, and we are not going to be puppets of the 1%.” The crowd erupts into cheers of “El pueblo unido jamas sera vencido! (The people united will never be defeated).”
The march concludes with a second rally in Federal Plaza. The rally features various religious and community figures including Occupy Chicago’s Andy Manos, New York hip-hop artist Rebel Diaz, and Chicago spokesperson for the United Antiwar Coalition Joe Iosbaker.
Mayor Emanuel and May Day 2012
Rahm Emanuel is no Carter Harrison. If Harrison could attend this year’s May Day festivities, he would have chatted up a paletero, snacked on cotton candy, and strolled leisurely through Union Park while courting potential voters. It is difficult to imagine the same of Emanuel. He seems unwilling to stand toe-to-toe with those most deeply affected by his policies. In fact, Mayor Emanuel was conspicuously absent from Chicago’s May Day celebration. His public schedule listed only two events. At 10:00 a.m., he made a generic announcement about “increasing efficiency in city government” at the Department of Streets and Sanitation, and at 6:00 p.m., he held a “Facebook Town Hall” meeting. Apparently, Emanuel prefers his interactions with the public to be mediated through the press or social media.
Likewise, Emanuel appears loath to engage even mild critics face-to-face. Mental health consumers, staff, and supporters have staged ongoing demonstrations against the closing and privatization of public mental health clinics for months. Neither Emanuel nor any of his senior staff have visited the site of this protest. It is disgraceful that Nobel Summit representatives from halfway across the globe visited the Woodlawn Adult Mental Health Center before the city’s own mayor. Even more disgraceful, these visitors chided the mayor for hosting high-profile events while depriving his citizens of vital services: “Chicago is able to raise the funds to sponsor showcase events like the Nobel Laureate Summit or the upcoming NATO meeting,” Cretin said. “I urge the mayor to be equally energetic in finding the funds to support the community mental health centers.” On April 30, 2012, citizens brought their demonstration to the Mayor’s office, but he never appeared. In response, the Mayor continues to repeat a tightly scripted response that assures that these closings constitute an expansion of services.
For all his political skill, Emanuel lacks the fundamental ability to connect with Chicago’s working class citizens. Mayor Harrison and even Emanuel’s predecessor, Mayor Daley, were adept at this. On May Day in 2008, Mayor Daley was not on Facebook. He stood on stage with Tom Morello, Perry Farrell, and Wayne Kramer and sang along with “This Land is Your Land.” Emanuel must learn that precisely scripted press releases and perfectly staged photo opportunities are an imperfect substitute for the dirty, but necessary, work of actually mingling with and listening to citizens.
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